Economics 101

The Meaning of Justice and Mercy in Public Life

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The prophet Micah told his readers that God requires of us, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). But what does this mean?

The Meaning of Justice and Mercy

What does it mean that God requires that we act justly? It means we are to abide by his law in our relationships with one another. The second half of the Ten Commandments deals with these requirements. Namely, we should honor all of our relationships and refrain from murder, theft, and lying as we deal with other people. Finally, we should be content with ourselves and refrain from coveting the posessions of others. To promote justice, God ordained government to penalize and punish those who would violate others. This ordination is limited to specific crimes, as God has reserved for himself the task of final judgment and punishment.

Second, we are to love mercy. The Bible asserts that all people have failed to live in complete accord with God’s law, but also states that God has been merciful to us in Christ Jesus. In particular, Christ died on the cross as a substitute to atone for the failures of people. Mercy, then, is a matter of God’s sovereign choice and pleasure. Though no one deserves God’s mercy and grace, he nevertheless has chosen to provide it in Christ. It follows that if we love the mercy extended to us by God we will show mercy as a matter of personal volition to others around us.

But this raises other questions. Are we still showing mercy if we abdicate this responsibility to government? Can government be the agency of dispensing mercy?

The Meaning of Mercy in Alleviating Poverty and Suffering

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. The government has no inherent resources from which to show mercy. Therefore, in order to act as an agent of mercy it must do so by violating justice. That is, it must use force to acquire the resources from some people that it will give to others. In this sense it has denied someone’s property rights and participated in moving someone’s boundary stone. This does damage to the very concept of what mercy is.

It is quite natural for us to empathize with the plight of the unfortunate suffering of others. As such, charity has always been valued by us. Our brotherhood with all people affirms our humanity. However, we must realize that mercy is always a voluntary choice or else it would not be merciful. True charity has always been defined as voluntary sacrifice motivated by love. If someone could force someone else to be merciful to them, it would cease to be mercy. Furthermore, we should be reminded that God chose to have mercy on those upon whom he would have mercy. We are never in any position to demand that God provide it for us as we have all fallen far short of his just requirements.

If we truly believe in treating our neighbors mercifully, we cannot abdicate that responsibility to the government. We must actively participate in charitable acts of kindness if our concern is to be genuine. If we abdicate to government and try to force others to pay for what we presume is charitable, we have been neither charitable or just.

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  • Pete Smith

    The writer states: “The government has no inherent resources from which to show mercy.” This would presuppose that mercy is reduced to some type of monetary gift. That is far too narrow an idea. Penalties for certain infractions could be lessened. That’s mercy. Waiving fees for the poor could be merciful. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar: “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed” (Dan 4:27 ESV). Protection may seem like justice, but it also sounds like mercy.

    • Leviticus 19:15: “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

      God encourages individuals to show preference for the poor, but not the government. The government must be blind to status and treat every citizen alike.

  • Scott Seaton

    In Ps 72, Solomon asks God to give the king, i.e. Solomon, God’s justice and righteousness because Solomon lacks those qualities on his own. But as an image bearer, Solomon can image the perfect King in his own human reign. With that basis, he then is able to:

    v. 4 “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!”

    Is this simply a pattern for OT kings, that no longer exists under the new covenant? Or a pattern for all kings (and all in governmental service), that they are to image the King of kings, including by their caring for the poor and needy? I believe the latter. We may properly disagree over how government wisely shows mercy to the poor and needy, but not its responsibility.

    That’s a comment at 20,000′. On the ground, what about government providing care for kids in abusive homes? My wife and I recently finished training in our county’s foster care program, and may soon have a child placed in our home. I’ve been very grateful and proud of the professionalism and support of our county’s government, in coming alongside the poor and needy, and those who are oppressed. I honestly don’t have a principled objection to those governmental services. Am I mis-reading Ps 72? (I’m preaching on it next week, so feedback is welcome!)

  • PeterKushkowski

    Many years ago, long before political correctness and digital photography, a pastor shared this distinction between justice and mercy;
    Returning to the studio where she had earlier sat to have formal portrait takens, the woman eagerly returned to view the results. Upon seeing them she exclaimed to the photographer, “Why these pictures don’t do me justice!”
    “If I may,” replied the photographer, “You don’t need justice. You need mercy.”

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